China’s Chang’e 3 spacecraft successfully touched down on the moon and deployed the "Jade Rabbit" rover, and now the pair have now sent their first images back to Earth.
The color photographs, which the rover and lander took of each other, elicited applause from the engineers at Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Center.
The successful touchdown -- the first soft landing in nearly four decades -- prompted NASA’s planetary science division to congratulate the Chinese space agency on Twitter.
“Congratulations, China. Chang'e-3 lands on the moon,” @NASASolarSystem tweeted shortly after the touchdown.
The landing is the first soft landing on the moon since the Soviet Union sent the sample-collecting Luna 24 mission in 1976.
The Chang’e 3 spacecraft arrived in an area called the Bay of Rainbows on Saturday shortly after 5:11 a.m. Pacific time and proceeded to gingerly deploy its rover, Yutu. The Chang’e mission is named after a moon goddess – and Yutu, the "Jade Rabbit," was said to be her long-eared companion.
The lander’s year-long mission will allow it to be a standing lunar observatory of sorts; The Yutu rover’s mission will involve measuring the depth of the lunar crust, among many other tasks, according to CCTV.
The rover and lander are just part of China’s long-term spacefaring plan. Chang’e 3 follows two other lunar explorers. Chang’e 1, launched in 2007, mapped the moon’s surface, and 2010’s Chang’e 2 blasted off in 2010 to get a closer look at the lunar terrain before leaving to explore other regions of space.
Thus far, these spacecraft designs have essentially come in pairs. Chang’e 2 was a modified version of Chang’e 1; Chang’e 4, with a planned launch in 2015, will likely be a tweaked version of Chang’e 3. Plans are already in the works for a Chang’e 5 spacecraft, set to be China’s first sample return mission.
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